This post originally appeared on The Nation blog.
So I start off by defining my “true colors” on a questionnaire that is made up of nine dimensions. Then I’m asked a series of in-depth, “core” questions, and upon completion I’m informed that I can now match with people who share my views. Each of my matches has a score that I can compare to mine and has answered a series of core questions that I can also evaluate to assess compatibility. And no, I didn’t just sign up for an online dating site for political junkies. I took part in the online grassroots movement to elect our next president through a national online primary that will place a bipartisan ticket on the 2012 ballot in all fifty states.
Americans Elect is a nonpartisan organization whose motto is “Pick a president, not a party.” This president can be anyone that fulfills the constitutional requirements. One can self-declare or draft a candidate. All of the candidates have their profiles posted with an accompanying compatibility score. For example, my match on the nine true-color dimensions with declared candidate Buddy Roemer, the former governor of Louisiana, is 47.8 percent. But if I don’t want to let science alone dictate my match I can also choose potential candidates based on their biographical essays and responses to more in-depth, ideological questions. From there I can choose to track and/or add my support to different candidates.
In late spring of this year, Americans Elect will hold a primary consisting of three rounds of online balloting where the six candidates with the most votes will emerge. Anyone can vote as long as they are a registered voter. With the exception of Texas, any person can vote, even if they have voted in a partisan primary. The primary finalists will then choose a running mate, but the hitch is that the VP pick has to be from an opposite party.
The next stage is an online convention where the ticket that achieves a majority is chosen. This ticket then receives the Americans Elect nomination that translates into placement on the 2012 ballot in all fifty states, not an easy task. The bulk of the donations Americans Elect receives goes to the effort of collecting the required signatures to secure a slot on the ballot in each state. Americans Elect does not endorse candidates or provide financial support to individuals. Instead, Americans Elect finance the process of finding and electing an alternative choice.
The general motivation for Americans Elect is to give Americans a voice beyond partisan confines, and the vehicle to do this is technology. Americans Elect is nonpartisan, though the candidates it puts forward can be partisans, of any stripe. The movement seeks to get beyond hyper-partisanship and expand the number of people who participate in politics, both as voters and as candidates. According to Kahlil Byrd, Americans Elect CEO, “Partisan stalemate has choked off the ability to put big political issues on the table.” His organization seeks to give these issues room to breathe.
Americans Elect is especially critical of the current primary process that disproportionately biases early states, not leaving much of a choice to later voters in the majority of the nation. Americans Elect also seeks to broaden participation by making voting easy. As they rightly point out, our electoral system, developed in agrarian times, is arcane and biased toward decreasing rather than increasing participation. If we can pay our taxes online, why not vote online? The technology is there, and they should know, given that their chief technology officer is Josh Levine, former CTO of E-Trade.
I could not agree more with Americans Elect’s goal to broaden political participation through technology. However, I am weary of their intention to get beyond partisanship. Let’s just imagine that the Americans Elect ticket wins the presidency. The executive would still have to contend with a partisan Congress. Institutionally, Congress is locked into a two-party system as a result of how members are elected through winner-take-all single member districts. Our electoral system incentivizes the pooling of resources into only two parties. We may not like how Congress works (or doesn’t), but unless we completely overhaul our electoral design, the idea of a nonpartisan president is hard to conceive.
Americans Elect is focused on the election of the president. Going forward, the organization will expand to the state and local level. While I applaud their ambitious thinking, I question why they didn’t reverse the model and gain momentum from the ground up. Moving from the local and state level up through the national level would better allow for the gargantuan task of changing our electoral system, which would in turn facilitate a president’s truly being nonpartisan.